Sermon of the Week:
Go Low. Go High.
Week two of a four part sermon series:
Good Vibes: Finding Joy
Keywords: Bach. Humility. Incarnation. Philippians. Mary and Elizabeth #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I’m going to venture talking a bit this morning
about something I know very little about,
namely the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach composed the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben
or Heart and Mind and Deed and Life, in 1723,
his first year as director of church music in Leipzig, Germany.
That was apparently a very important music gig at the time,
and he would remain there in Leipzig until he died twenty-seven years later.
I didn’t know any of that, before this weekend,
when I looked up some history of the song we call
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, or sometimes just “Joy.”
The main thing I knew about Jesu is that
it is a very popular wedding song.
Brook and I included it in our wedding, almost 21 years ago now.
It is usually played slowly and reverently, for weddings
which is a beautiful way to offer it…don’t you think?
but it can also be offered more up-tempo, and used in different contexts.
Earlier this week, all I knew was that Courtney was going to be offering our special music this week
and when I finally listened to it, and heard that this was the song she had played…
I was transported back to my wedding
and to many of the weddings I’ve been fortunate to officiate over the years…
as music sometimes does for us, a prompt that stirs memory,
and hopefully good memories more often than not.
I didn’t have a hand in selecting this piece Courtney and Eryn played for today,
but it is an inspired choice for us,
this month as we’re reading through Philippians
and thinking about Joy as the Apostle Paul would have us understand it.
Apparently, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring has always had lyrics accompanying it
because it is derived from a chorale setting of Herz und Mund,
which was originally meant to be performed in Early July, right about now,
when the churches of Leipzig celebrated Mary’s Visit to her cousin Elizabeth,
a story we often read about in the Gospel According to Luke
usually around Advent,
in December, as we’re getting our hearts and minds ready for the birth of a savior…
You might remember some of the language that Luke uses to describe that encounter
between Mary and Elizabeth,
Mary walks in the door at Elizabeth’s place, both of them waiting, expecting,
and Elizabeth feels her yet-to-be-born son, John the Baptist, kick in her womb
because, Luke tells us, in walks Mary and with her, lo,
the yet-to-be-born Jesus too, savior of the world,
and Elizabeth yelps,
Luke says “she exclaimed with a loud cry”:
Blessed are you among women
and blessed is the fruit of your womb…
and there’s this touching and indeed joyful moment between the two women.
Did they grasp the significance of what was going on?
Yes, probably so.
Elizabeth says to Mary “the child in my womb leaped for joy,”
which causes Mary to gasp herself
and then to sing her own canticle, a song we call the Magnificat, which starts
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant…”
How in the world did we get here, Mary and Elizabeth seem to be saying to each other.
How is it that we matter in this cosmic story?
Indeed, Luke twice describes what Mary and Elizabeth are experiencing as Joy,
and it does feel, as we read it
that we’re fortunate to be observing a truly joyful encounter
a recognition of the world-turned-upside-down possibility that their children are going to usher forth,
even though you and I both know that Jesus’ life and ministry will be….complicated
with moments of fear and stress and worry and anxiety and loss.
Still, Mary and Elizabeth are joyful, for the things their children will accomplish,
and for the pregnancy they each are bearing, itself.
Come to think of it that we don’t often describe a pregnancy as JOYFUL, either, do we,
because pregnancy also can be complicated, and painful, and stressful, and annoying,
sometimes very sad,
certainly not always happy,
whether it is for impoverished and marginalized women in a Judean hillside village
or expectant mothers, anywhere, today.
Part of the point is that Joy and Happiness are not the same thing, after all.
Sometimes you get both, which is wonderful.
But you can also have moments of happiness, but they can be joyless, and empty.
And we can experience Joy, even in complicated, difficult moments and situations.
Joy is the awareness of hope, of meaning,
of a larger something
that is beautiful and possible and alive….
and we can experience that even when other things are not so wonderful.
When we think about this way, we know we see it all the time,
particularly when we have the perspective to step back and place these moments
within that larger something, that greater purpose.
For instance, this weekend one of my closest friends
is saying goodbye to the community she’s worked with for 12 years
as she’s getting ready to move to a new state,
a moment that is full of both joy, because of her faithful sense
that this is the right thing for her to be doing,
but also sadness and loss at the community that she is going to be leaving behind.
Joy is often like that, when we see a larger purpose intertwined in the everyday,
something we see Mary and Elizabeth grappling with in Luke.
As I mentioned, the churches in Leipzig celebrated
that encounter between Mary and Elizabeth in early July, right about now,
no idea why they did that in early July, really,[i]
but I found it to be a really beautiful coincidence for us this morning,
that Bach wrote a cantata to mark the occasion,
which has become one of the most beloved pieces of his music,
and which was so beautifully played by Courtney for us today.
The lyrics connected to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring are interesting, too,
which I first read through this weekend.
According to Wikipedia,
here are translations of two of the more interesting stanzas:
Well for me that I have Jesus
O how tightly I hold him
that he might refresh my heart,
when I am sick and sad.
Jesus I have, who loves me
and gives himself to me,
ah, therefore I will not leave Jesus,
Even if I feel my heart is breaking.
Can you hear that affirmation,
that assertion of joy
sometimes even in the midst of heartbreak, of worry, of sadness,
because of the love and presence of Jesus in our lives?
Here’s one more stanza:
Jesus remains my joy,
my heart’s comfort and essence,
Jesus fends off all suffering,
He is my life’s strength,
my eye’s desire and sun,
my soul’s treasure and pleasure;
Therefore I will not leave Jesus
out of heart and face.
I admit, I don’t ordinarily lend myself to church music
that is sung in the first person.
A lot of contemporary Christian music, for instance,
is written from that vantage point, and, to me, it often has felt artificial.
So I’m not sure why these have impacted me a bit differently this morning,
as I’ve been reflecting on this reading from the Philippians for us this morning.
Maybe it is because Paul does a good job blending God’s care for the individual
with how God empowers community, how every I is nurtured within the we,
and how the we of community is deeply concerned with each individual I.
As we talked about last week,
the Apostle Paul spent the first chapter explaining the deep, mutual affection that he felt
for the people at the church in Philippi.He remembers them fondly,
even though he’s imprisoned,
even though his ministry has required him to travel,
even though he misses them…
and so he holds them in his heart
or, is it that they hold him in theirs,
and this mutual concern gives him a boost, it empowers him, enlivens him,
to continue on his work with thanksgiving.
These relationships are, at heart, empowering, non-transactional,
they have God at the heart of them
and therefore they mean everything to Paul
Bach’s song about Jesus, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, sings
Jesus remains my Joy, my hearts comfort and essence…
Well for me that I have Jesus…that he might refresh my heart when I am sick and sad…
and Paul says, yes, that’s exactly it,
because of the friendship and the community that Jesus gives us to share
the way that I care for you, and you care for me.
And then, Paul transitions here, in our reading today from the second chapter,
to talk a bit about a particular kind of life
that befits those who are guided by that Jesus…
If there is any encouragement in Christ
any consolation from love,
any sharing in the spirit,
any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete…
have the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Did you see what Paul did just there?
Emulate Christ, so that we might magnify this compassion and sympathy for one another.
Strive to imitate Jesus,
through love and the sharing of the spirit.
And in this way, we can get through the lowest lows, the highest of highs.
Then, at the end of our reading today, we heard this conclusion as he wrote his friends:
“For, it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
God will help you work all this out, Paul is saying.
Just keep your eyes on Jesus…
One of the ways that Paul wants us to emulate Jesus is through humility.
Humility is an interesting topic for us to think about,
and I admit, it kind of seems out of place here in this discussion about compassion and sympathy.
One of my favorite jokes, with my admittingly sardonic sense of humor,
is to say that I’m one of the best people I know at being humble…
my own version of that Mac Davis ditty
O Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way…
Why do you think Paul decided to talk about humility here, in this context?
Well, one way to think about it
is to consider how just how different
the experience of God as seen through the life and ministry of Jesus was for the people of that time.
Like many of the places Paul would visit,
Philippi was a thoroughly Greco-Roman city,
with most of the residents following the Roman gods of the day.
Those Gods weren’t exactly the best role models.
Those Gods were transcendent, often completely disinterested in human affairs,
except as a means to help them, to give them amusement.
It would have been silly to think of a God choosing to spend time with human beings,
except as a way to use them, take advantage of them.
It was a lot like the relationship of an emperor to the people:
what do ordinary people matter to him, except to exploit, to use, to take advantage of.
The same of the Gods, if not more so,
who dwell on mount Olympus and do their own thing,
while the people toil on, subject to their fancy and whim.
You can imagine how hopeless it must have felt, if that’s your understanding of what God is,
something that is distant and aloof and not to be bothered with you.
But that’s not who God is, says Paul. Not even close.
We know that, because we’ve experienced a different kind of God
one who, incarnate in Jesus, didn’t take God-status as something to be exploited
but, instead, decided to become one of us—a person!—
and not just the kind of person you might expect a God to become
someone rich and famous and powerful and privileged….
no, God became incarnate in Jesus
Mary’s boy, from a no-name, no-where, nothing of a place.
To put an exclamation mark on it,
Paul describes it in the starkest terms he can think of:
Jesus took the form of a slave, his human form,
and was obedient to God’s calling in his life,
which was to love and to serve and to heal and to teach
and to so share the realm of God that he would even die for it, for us….
That’s really wild, when you try to think about it
from the perspective of the time,
when what people knew of the Gods
is that they liked to sit around and drink ambrosia
and conspire of ways to take advantage of the other Gods….
Jesus is all together different.
So you need to think differently, act differently,
if you’re going to have the same mind that Jesus had…
namely, you need to adopt something of that same humility
which sees other people as just as worthy of God’s grace as you are
just as loved as you are
just as human as you are.
Because when Jesus did that…
he started a new way of thinking about God that changed everything
that enabled us to look beyond our sectarian ways
to that time where there is no Jew or Greek, no Slave or Free, no Male and Female,
for all of us are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The life of Jesus is all about embodying that kind of humility
healing the blind and the lepers and the hurt
feeding the hungry,
inviting tax collectors and prostitutes and scribes and pharisees and everyday nobodies
to claim a dignity and a worth they had never been given before
parables about wedding parties and dropping everything for one lost sheep and “fair” wages
the life of Jesus is all about embodying that kind of humility
where all people, all people, are part of the realm of God.
In personal terms, Paul is saying that the God we experience in Jesus cares about you.
Cares so much about you that God would become part of all this,
this messy world we live in,
so as to redeem it and set us on a path of care and compassion, justice and peace.
This is why we give Jesus the highest of names, says Paul,
the name that is above every name.
Because of his humility, because of his compassion.
I love that, because it gives me something that I can aim for in my own life,
to actually keep from putting myself on that pedestal,
to honestly work to live a life that seeks to empower and lift up others
particularly those who are hurting or on the margins.
I love that, because it also is an important message of solidarity,
for people who need to hear it,
this Jesus who became incarnate in backwater Bethlehem,
that God cares about you, even if others do not,
that God cares about you,
even if the structures and the powers of this world
are unjustly stacked against you,
that God cares about you, and therefore I should too,
and that if I am going to imitate God
I will need to make you my sibling in Christ
and together we will seek to make the world a better place.
And I love that, because it is a word of warning
when I want to make everything about me,
instead of about the greater good that I get to be a part of,
because it reminds me that I’m to use what that I’ve been given
as Jesus did.
And it all starts with that affirmation of what God is doing in Jesus,
and Paul’s urging that we take it to heart
in our lives of faith.
Would that give us joy?
Yes, I think it would,
because it would mean that you have value, and I have value,
and because we do,
God can comfort our hearts in ways that the world simply cannot,
and God give just work to do, for God’s glory and for the common good.
It is one important piece of the larger context, the greater story,
of God’s intention for all of us in the realm of God, something that we can latch on to
in good times, and in times of stress and difficulty.
So may we take Jesus’ humility to heart
the one who came down to earth to lift us all higher
the one who shows us how love can be more powerful than death
and compassion more empowering than self-centeredness.
And when we do,
may we work for justice and reconciliation in our land
so that God’s reign will be just a little bit closer,
that we may all experience Jesus, the joy of our desiring,
today, tomorrow, and forevermore.